Great Week

The Days of the Bridegroom

On the first three days of Great Week, we pray quietly at the Liturgy of the Presanctified, listening to Gospel readings from Matthew (ch 24-26), as the Lord preaches and teaches in Jerusalem following His Palm Sunday entrance. In many larger parishes, on Sunday through Wednesday of Great Week, Bridegroom Matins are served, whence these days take their name. The Tropar of these days explains the attitude of watchful expectation:

“Behold! the Bridegroom comes at midnight, and blessed is the servant whom He shall find watching; and again, unworthy is the servant whom He shall find heedless. Beware, therefore, O my soul: do not be weighed down with sleep, lest you be given up to death, and lest you be shut out of the Kingdom; but rouse your-self, crying: Holy! Holy! Holy! art Thou, O our God. Through the Theotokos, have mercy on us!”

On Wednesday evening, in Greek tradition, the full Service of Holy Anointing is celebrated. This custom began during the Turkish occupation of Greece and the Middle East, since all were in constant danger of death for their Christian Faith. Some larger Russian parishes have begun to adopt this Mediterranean usage as well.

Great Thursday and Great Friday

On the morning of Great Thursday, we serve the Vespers and Divine Liturgy which commemorate the Last Supper and the Betrayal by Judas. We stand in awe before the mystery of human sinfulness, and the overwhelming love with which God responds to heal our infirmities:

“Of Thy Mystical Supper, O Son of God, accept me today as a communicant; for I will not speak of Thy Mystery to Thine enemies, neither like Judas will I give Thee a kiss, but like the thief will I confess Thee: Remember me, O Lord, in Thy Kingdom.” (Cherubikon of Great Thursday)

On Great Thursday evening, we gather again at the Matins of the Twelve Gospels to hear twelve readings from the Evangelists’ accounts of the Passion and Death of the Lord. We become exhausted with the grief of what is taking place, but never forget the Resurrection which is to come.

Our meditation on the Cross continues, in many parishes, Friday morning with the Royal Hours. Our awe increases as we behold the terrible sight of the Crucified Creator:

“Today, He who hung the earth upon the waters
is hung on the tree.
The King of Angels is decked
with a crown of thorns.
He who wraps the heavens in clouds
is wrapped in the purple of mockery.
He who freed Adam in the Jordan
is slapped on the face.
The Bridegroom of the Church
is affixed to the Cross with nails.
The Son of the Virgin is pierced by a spear.
We worship Thy Passion, O Christ.
We worship Thy Passion, O Christ.
We worship Thy Passion, O Christ.
Show us also Thy glorious Resurrection.”

On the afternoon of Great Friday, we gather at the foot of the Cross for Vespers, and bear the Shroud which has the image of the dead Christ to the tomb which has been donated by Joseph of Arimathea. Even at this most solemn time, we do not forget the reality of the Resurrection, which is inseparable from the Mystery of the Cross:

“The noble Joseph, when he had taken down Thy most pure Body from the tree, wrapped it in fine linen, and anointed it with spices, and placed it in a new tomb.

The angel came to the myrrh-bearing women at the tomb and said: Myrrh is fitting for the dead, but Christ has shown Himself a stranger to corruption.” (Troparia from Great Friday Vespers) In the evening of Great Friday, we complete the day with Matins. We stand before the tomb, quietly waiting, keeping vigil with the Theotokos and the angels, as we wonder at how the author of life can lie in a tomb. We once again take up the Shroud in solemn procession, and conclude our prayer in somber adoration, prostrating ourselves, and kissing the shroud of the Lord.

Great Saturday

Great Saturday begins in the morning with the Vespers and Divine Liturgy of St. Basil, at which we first hear of the marvels of the Lord’s deliverance of Israel from Pharaoh. Great and Holy Saturday is the day of the Harrowing of Hell : while His body lies in the tomb, Christ descends into the netherworld to reclaim Adam, Eve and all the righteous from the prison of death. This is imaged in our primary icon of Pascha. Thus the rescue of Israel from Egypt and the rescue of the human race from Hades are seen as coming from the same saving hand of the Lord.

At the midpoint of this Service, as the people sing: “Arise, O God, judge the earth: for to Thee belong all the nations, “all the vestments and cloths are changed from dark to light. The priest and deacon emerge in white and gold vestments, and we read the gospel of the Resurrection (Mt. 28:1-20). Even though we are joyful, as we continue the celebration of the Eucharist, the news of the Resurrection stays for the moment within the community of believers, as it did at first among the Disciples:

“Let all mortal flesh keep silent, and in fear and trembling stand, pondering nothing earthly-minded, for the King of Kings, and the Lord of Lords, comes to be slain, to give Himself as food to the faithful. Before Him go the ranks of angels, all the principalities and powers, the many-eyed Cherubim and the six-winged Seraphim; covering their faces, singing the hymn: Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!” (Cherubikon of Great Saturday)